You're probably aware that your devices are capable of giving away their positions. If your device is lost or stolen, these features can be used to recover them. If you have the devices with you, they can let your friends and family know where you are---as well as some applications and websites.
Many question the security and privacy risks of these features. Others praise their utility. Understanding how you feel about these features and how you choose to use them is easier when you understand how they work.
So, how does your mobile device determine and share a location?
How Does Your Device Know?
There a number of different ways that your device location can be determined and shared. Some of them have to do with networks that it may be connected to.
Your Internet Connections
Mobile devices that can connect to the internet have an Internet Protocol address. IP addresses are assigned by the internet service provider (ISP), and they're actually super easy to find. Think of IP addresses like phone numbers but for the internet.
If you're afraid of revealing your IP address, there are a couple of things that you can do like employing a VPN or just not connecting your mobile device to a Wi-Fi connection.
Your mobile devices can still give away your position if you have Wi-Fi turned off but your data turned on. This works similarly to a Wi-Fi connection, but a cellular network provider creates the connection rather than your ISP, gaining access to your data in the process.
GPS determines a device's position using satellites. As a result, it doesn't require internet service and works pretty much anywhere. So, if your phone isn't connected to Wi-Fi or data, it may still be giving away your location.
GPS data is used by both Android Location Services and Apple Location Services. Third-party apps using APIs from these platforms can also access this information when you use those apps. You can refuse the permissions for most of these apps individually when you open them, or in the app settings. You can also disable your device location in the settings.
If your location data is turned off, your provider can make that information available upon request. This may be done if your device is lost or stolen, or if you call an emergency number.
In this high-tech world, it can be easy to forget the simple things. You can turn off your device location all you want, but remember that photos that you post or information that you share can also give away your location.
Is Location Data a Good Thing?
Some people take drastic measures to protect their security information. Others literally want people to know where they are. So, is location data a good thing, or not?
Location Data Is Your Friend
Giving at least some apps permission to use your device location does have advantages. This article has already mentioned lost or stolen devices and helping first responders or law enforcement respond to an emergency. However, there are other applications as well.
Services like Google can use your precise location to offer you information on points of interest, transportation, and weather in your area. They also use aggregate information to predict things like traffic and arrival times when you use location services.
If you want friends or family to know your location but not others, consider sharing your location directly with those select people through your Google Profile rather than through social media platforms.
Apps like Snapchat using Geofilters can also make photo opportunities even more unique by giving you customization options that are only available in specific locations.
Location Data Is Not Your Friend
A lot of people are afraid of location data. For most people, there's not really anything to be afraid of.
For one thing, there's so much location data out there that for any one person to be singled out would be practically impossible. Even if that wasn't the case, services like Apple and Google Location Services anonymize data when presenting aggregates.
That means that the only location data that you should be afraid of is location data that you enter into apps yourself or the apps that you give access to. Not only are these organizations potentially less trustworthy, but this is also the location data that is most readily associated with you personally and not anonymized.
For example, social media sites that show your location to "friends" can give your location away to people that you'd rather not see as well. Some social media sites may also use your location to do things like target advertisements, a practice that some people are opposed to.
Furthermore, streaming sites and other content providers use geo-restrictions that limit available content based on your location. You can usually get past geo-restrictions with a VPN.
Location Data is Complicated
The bad news is that you can't run from your location data without leaving your phone at home. The good news is that you don't have to.
Being mindful of the permissions that you give to individual apps is a much more efficient method of protecting your location than leaving your phone at home or refusing to connect to the internet. And that's a good thing because some of the services offered by location data, like directed advertising, are appreciated by one person and despised by the next.
While there are those who categorically despise the idea of location data and location sharing, like any technology, it isn't inherently positive or negative.
Your Device Location and You
Your mobile devices have a number of ways to know and share locations. Which method they use depends on the device, what connections it has access to, and what apps have access to those networks and the device's location data.
Your internet connection, mobile data connection, and GPS are the three principal ways that your device can know and share your location. While some of these can be turned off manually, that your device can give away its location has become a simple fact of life.
Image Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/flickr
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